Two culturally significant Frogtown bars -- from separate but not entirely different worlds -- met their demise with the revocation of one liquor license Wednesday night at St. Paul City Hall.
Fortunately for blues lovers, one of them will live on. Ted Wilebski, the owner of Wilebski's Blues Saloon, saw the writing on the wall. In fact, he had his name painted onto the wall of another building 2 miles away by the time the City Council got around to ruling against his (now former) landlord, co-tenant and license holder, Moonlight Magic, a bar that caters to the neighborhood's sizable Hmong population.
It was pretty clear at Wednesday's public hearing that the City Council had about as much interest in maintaining Moonlight Magic's license as it would in changing the city letterhead to read: "Like Minneapolis, but older."
A city attorney cited numerous infractions and fines for serving minors at Moonlight Magic, which did not deter even more infractions and fines a few months later. Not mentioned was a fatal beating outside the bar last summer, apparently because it's still under investigation.
Council Member Melvin Carter, whose ward includes Frogtown, also said he hears complaints about the bar "far too much" from local residents. None of those residents felt strongly enough to show up and speak in person.
The only neighbor who spoke up did so in favor of the bar. He suggested that part of the problem with Moonlight Magic might be the language barrier. I wasn't sure if he was talking about the barrier between native English speakers and Hmong, or between English speakers and the hyper-technical, nerdy legal jargon thrown around for city code and council meetings.
On the other hand, not much English know-how is needed to read "1989" on a driver's license.
Ted Wilebski also showed up at the hearing to voice his support for Moonlight Magic. His stake in the situation was officially over, but he came anyway.
"It's a historic building," he told the council, pointing to the 120-year legacy there, which includes his own parents' wedding rehearsal dinner. "To let it be shut down, or let vagrants in there, would be a shame."
The Wilebski's and Moonlight Magic story is as much about the stressful, thankless, downright perilous job of running a bar -- especially a blues bar -- as it is about the way neighborhoods change.
Outside the council chambers, Wilebski talked about how his native Frogtown has always hosted immigrant populations. He drew a map in the air, pointing to where the different schools for the German, Irish and Polish kids used to stand. And as he did when he reopened the Blues Saloon this past winter, he ran down the list of musicians who performed there when he ran the place from 1979 to the mid-'90s, including John Lee Hooker, Etta James, a young Robert Cray and not one but two guys who literally died onstage there. (Blues musicians, in case you hadn't noticed, aren't the healthiest bunch of players; at least not the authentic ones.)
All that music history surely wasn't more important than public safety, but it's still a great loss that can't be replicated.
Yet another blues revival?
The situation in Frogtown was like a flipped version of what happened to two musty but much-loved Minneapolis venues -- one that shut down last fall (Uptown Bar & Grill) and one scheduled to close in September (Bedlam Theater).
Bedlam's operators lost a fight to continue hosting music and theater events at their West Bank venue. Instead, it'll become a mosque for the neighborhood's many Muslims -- thus, a case where the current immigrant population won out.
You could say the same thing happened in Uptown, too, if you count as immigrants the corporate chain stores and swank condo units that have taken over the area. Fortunately, it's looking very good that the Uptown Bar will also get to reopen elsewhere, if it gets cooperation from Minneapolis City Hall.
There seems to be decent city support for Wilebski's in St. Paul. The mayor's arts liaison, Joe Spencer, told me, "It's an institution. We'll do what we can to help them be successful."
Still, Wilebski will have a steep uphill battle making the new version of his Blues Saloon work. He's moving to a large, tiered, dated building that used to house Club Cancun, another trouble spot near the intersection of Larpenteur Avenue and Rice Street in St. Paul's North End. It's also in a transitional neighborhood, this one heavily Latino. The fact that the bar's walls bore instructions on how to order a beer in Spanish was a clue that Latinos didn't hang out there much when it was Club Cancun.
New murals -- including a stage backdrop with Wilebski's name -- had already been painted as of Wednesday, and new stone flooring was being laid, but a ton of work remained before the targeted opening date of Friday. And then we'll probably need a couple of decades for the old bar's historic vibe to kick in.
Wilebski seemed incredibly confident that it will all happen on target, though. After the mess that mired down everything in Frogtown, one can understand why these new tasks might seem easy.
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